The B-2 and Television

Feb. 1, 1991

According to opinion polls, a high percentage of Americans think the B-2 Stealth bomber should be canceled. This is understandably distressing to the US Air Force, which regards the B-2 as a critical requirement.

In a free society, public opinion has a powerful influence on public policy. That is fundamental to our process of government and politics, but the principle is subverted when the public does not have accurate information on the issues. It is important, therefore, to ask what evidence the public heard before reaching a verdict on the B-2.

Part of the answer is provided by Stephen Aubin, an Olin research fellow at the Boston University Center for Defense Journalism. Analyzing B-2 coverage, day by day for more than a year, Mr. Aubin found that the three major television networks–the main source of news for most Americans–fed their viewers a distorted story.

ABC, CBS, and NBC concentrated, almost single-mindedly, on the cost of the B-2. They showed little interest in the aircraft’s military mission, capabilities, or technology. Its role in arms control and strategic deterrence got very short shrift. The networks reported with relish on problems in the B-2 program but consistently ignored the successes.

To merit airtime, a story had to be visual and dramatic. For one eight-month stretch, between rollout and taxi tests, the B-2 practically disappeared from network newscasts. The reason, apparently, was that the producers had no interesting new pictures to show. When there were pictures, the newscasters overlaid them with pejorative adjectives like “exorbitant” and “ominous-looking.” Mr. Aubin cites several instances in which television enhanced or cooked the facts, making the story more titillating.

The networks seldom passed up an opportunity to be snide. ABC’s Diane Sawyer pitched her July 10, 1989, report this way: “What’s long overdue, way over budget, and proved today it can travel at least six miles on the ground?” She added that the B-2 “rolled up and down a runway in California today, the first time it’s gone anywhere under its own power.” Did the viewers understand that the news element in this cleverness was that the B-2 had done exactly what it was supposed to do in its taxi test

A week later, Fred Francis of NBC followed Ms. Sawyer’s pattern as he reported the B-2’s first flight: “The bat-winged bomber, the costliest weapon ever built, 18 months overdue, and already being trashed by Congress, lifted gracefully into the California dawn.” The networks felt compelled to point out that this first flight was not very fast and not very high and did not demonstrate the B-2’s ability to evade radar. Did the viewers understand that the flight was not supposed to do any of those things, or, given such cues as “costliest,” “overdue,” and “trashed,” did they reach some other conclusion? In April 1989, CBS told the nation that the new Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, had reservations about the B-2. A month later, Mr. Cheney gave the B-2 program high marks for quality control and expressed his support. CBS did not find that newsworthy.

Print media coverage of the B-2, which Mr. Aubin also studied, was more complete and better balanced. Newspapers, magazines, and newsletters had their share of negativism and bias, Mr. Aubin said, but the expanded context in print media “often gives the reader a fighting chance to form his own opinion.”

It is no surprise that the most analytical coverage was in technical and trade publications, whose readers expect more than superficiality. Still, many reporters and columnists in general-interest publications seemed to understand that although the cost of the B-2 was an issue, it was not the only issue and perhaps not even the most important issue.

Mr. Aubin presents a fuller report of his findings in The B-2 and Network News, published in January by the Aerospace Education Foundation. Mr. Aubin is demonstrably not flacking for the B-2 or any other Pentagon program. In fact, he even points out a couple of negative angles the networks missed on the B-2.

Who knows what conclusions the vast viewing audience might have reached about the B-2, given a fuller set of facts and exposure to less simplistic considerations? Unfortunately, the networks have not given us a chance to find out.

The fate of the B-2 will probably be decided in Congress this year. The hand of those who oppose the program is undoubtedly strengthened by the B-2’s bad image in the opinion polls. Let us hope that the final round of debate goes deeper than the fluff dispensed on the evening newscasts. Both the airplane and the public deserve better than they have gotten from network television.

It is ironic that the B-2, designed to defeat enemy radar, remains vulnerable to an electronic device of a different kind. It has no effective defenses against the domestic television camera.